The actors were in KL to promote the new East meets West martial arts war epic.
ABOUT a minute into our exclusive interview, a look of annoyance flashed across Jackie Chan’s face, and he stood up irritably to shout, “Oi oi, behind! Shh! Action! Rolling! Quiet on the set!”
And just like that, the entire room went silent.
“See, that’s what it’s like making a movie with him,” John Cusack promptly quipped.
It says a lot about the respect people have for the recently honoured Datuk Jackie Chan that even in a room with a Hollywood heavyweight, a Best Actor Oscar winner, and a Super Junior, his presence and stature just overshadow everyone else.
Chan was in town last week to promote his new movie Dragon Blade along with John Cusack, Adrien Brody, Choi Siwon, and actresses Lin Peng and Mika Wang.
Directed by Daniel Lee, Dragon Blade is a martial arts epic set in ancient China, with Chan starring as Huo An, the leader of the Protection Squad entrusted with guarding the famous Silk Road.
Wrongly accused of treason, he is sentenced to the Wild Geese Gate city in the middle of the Gobi Desert. While serving his sentence, a legion of Roman soldiers led by General Lucius (Cusack) tries to storm and takeover the city in search of food and shelter.
After a quick skirmish, Huo An and Lucius eventually become friends. Huo An learns that Lucius is protecting a young prince and they are on the run from the evil General Tiberius (Brody).
The movie also stars Choi as Huo An’s trusted lieutenant Yin Po, Wang as his wife Xiuqing, and Lin as Cold Moon, the daughter of the Huns desert tribe.
A film seven years in the making, Dragon Blade is the most expensive Chinese film ever made, with a budget of US$65mil (RM231mil) and a 700-strong international cast and crew.
Centre of attention
During the press conference at the Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur, the veteran action star had the entire room hanging on his every word. That charisma, and the ability to just draw people’s attention, is one that extends to the film set as well, which impressed both Brody and Cusack.
“I’ve worked with people who are tyrants, who make sure that things flow, and have control over everybody. What’s wonderful about Jackie is he does this with grace. People just gravitate towards him,” said Brody.
“What was most impressive was Jackie’s ability to rein things in and keep momentum going. That’s very hard to do on a film set in general, but on a movie of this magnitude with this many moving pieces, it’s even harder. But somehow Jackie exudes this sense of responsibility which makes people wake up and focus, and that’s really wonderful.”
Cusack added that Chan understands what it takes to get the best out of his crew. “When you’re on a set with Jackie, you don’t want to be anywhere else. Everybody there is there to make a movie – no one is looking on their phones or focused somewhere else,” said the 48-year-old actor who has worked on films like High Fidelity and 2012.
“He’s an actor, and he understands what it takes to make something good, and then he gives you the optimal environment to make something good!”
For Brody, it was the chance to work with one of his lifelong idols. “John has a lot of experience with martial arts, I do too, and we grew up loving the genre and Jackie’s work. Here we were transported to China on this epic grand film, interacting with him in a major way, and with a huge martial arts component. We were kids in a candy store!” the 41-year-old New Yorker shared with a laugh.
Likewise Choi – who, at 28, is the youngest of the four men, and a member of super-popular K-Pop group Super Junior – was also familiar with Chan’s movies. “He’s my generation’s hero. We all grew up watching his movies,” he said, while paying tribute to the two Hollywood stars as well. “I also got to work with these two awesome movie stars … I was really glad to work with them and had a good experience. I hope to do it again!”
The entire time his three co-stars were gushing about how great it was to be working with their idol, Jackie Chan, the man himself was sitting quietly, soaking up the praises quietly and humbly.
It begged the question – how do you deal with the pressure of having everyone around you constantly telling you how great you are, and wanting to work with you all the time?
“Can I speak Mandarin? Because when I speak Mandarin they can’t understand! Of course, in front of reporters and me, they would have to praise me more!” said the 61-year-old star, laughing and pointing at his co-stars.
On a more serious note, Chan continued in Mandarin: “All these years I’ve been making movies, I’ve always held true to my principles. When I make a movie, I give it everything – blood, sweat, tears … only then can I face the audience and myself.
“When I was at the peak of my career, I could have gone to get some easy money. I didn’t do that. When I was a big star in Asia, Hollywood offered me a lot of money to play villains – Michael Douglas offered me US$5mil to be a villain in Black Rain (1989) – but I refused. (Sylvester) Stallone offered me a good bad guy role as a drug dealer … I also refused. It’s hard, but you have to stick to your principles,” he said.
The fruits of this resolute stand, he said, is this respect that he gets from everyone now, though he still seems uncomfortable with all that acclaim.
“Everyone seems to want to make films with me. Some say that they want to make a film with me at least once in their lifetime. I always wonder, ‘why me?’” he said, with a resigned sigh. “I guess everyone has their own dreams. Even I have people I dream of working with – Steven Spielberg, George Lucas.”
Clash of cultures
Having worked both in Asia and Hollywood, Chan is well aware of the differences that exist between these filmmaking cultures. During an interview I had with him back in 2003 for Golden Medallion, he mentioned that in Hong Kong, he is always involved in almost all aspects of the film, but in Hollywood, where he is not, everything is so very comfortable that he gets irritated when he has nothing much to do.
“If the director is slow, and the crew is slow, then you are also slow,” said Chan. “But when you see the director on the set calling ‘Hurry up! Move on!’, then they would work faster!”
Even though they would be a lot more familiar with the Hollywood way of working, Cusack and Brody had no problems adapting to the rigors of filming in Asia, on top of the fact that Dragon Blade was filmed in the middle of the Gobi Desert at Dunhuang and Aksai in the West of China, under extreme weather conditions, with temperatures sometimes going up to 50°C.
“Any good actor would want to work fast. No one wants to sit around and do nothing!” said Cusack. “You can just give me a little stool to sit on with some water in the desert… it doesn’t matter – you just want to feel your heart pumping and get into it!”
Brody agreed, adding that it’s not typical of independent filmmaking to be lounging around doing nothing. “You just don’t have the resources to take your time. You’re always struggling to make time day after day so the pressure is on for everyone,” he said.
For Cusack, filming Dragon Blade was more of an adventure than a job. “Jackie’s movies all have a sense of adventure that is contagious … come on, he jumps off bridges onto hovercrafts!” said Cusack.
“As an actor, when you make films, you want to have an adventure too. So, coming to the Gobi Desert to make this movie with the eagles and the horses, doing fight scenes with the best fight choreographer around… it was totally insane, but it was pretty fun!”
Dragon Blade is currently playing in cinemas nationwide.